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Rights + Justice

Against Copenhagen

Why we need to 'lose' at this week's climate summit if we are to win the fight against global warming.

Michael M'Gonigle 6 Dec

Michael M'Gonigle is the EcoResearch Professor of Environmental Law and Politics at the University of Victoria. Read his earlier essays on The Tyee here.

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'Planetary eco-conversion' is what's really needed.

[Editor's note: University of Victoria Environmental Law Professor Michael M'Gonigle has many friends and students going to Copenhagen, leaving him (like the rest of us) to watch from a distance. This is the first part of a "letter to a friend" who is going. More tomorrow. The Tyee will provide diverse coverage and discussion of the summit and has several bloggers there. Follow the posts from Copenhagen on The Hook.]

Hello JB,

So you've arrived in Copenhagen, and the "Be-In" of the 21st century has started. It would be great to be there, though the trip would probably double my carbon footprint for the year.

But I wouldn't be much help anyway. Who needs a naysayer? Who wants to hear doubts about the whole exercise? Who would listen to the suggestion that, without a transformative outcome, the best result would be a complete failure?

They'd all ask, "Does this guy work for Exxon?"

Before you left, you wanted to discuss my justification for what seems to be a contradictory position. Like you, I am terrified and saddened at what climate change is doing to the Earth, and recognize that dramatic action is needed. But this is precisely why I take this position. We need to do it right, and Copenhagen is not on that track. We cannot afford to play still more games. It has been almost 20 years already since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty -- with only worsening conditions on the ground (and in the air). Why will this time be different? Sure, there's a lot more pressure, but it's still the same formula. And the same players.

We are in a tough spot. Environmentalists have done a phenomenal job at educating the public about climate change. We have cranked up a huge amount of political energy -- probably the greatest, most focused energy in the history of the movement. But we risk losing it on an agreement that is not just weak, but targeted on the wrong thing.

So here goes. I will do my best to lay out my contrarian position -- but be clear that I base it on strategy, not cynicism.

The only outcome that matters in the end is on how we can redirect this new energy to where it actually needs to be -- from the partial restraints of Copenhagen to full blown eco-conversion. Copenhagen is a story of many contradictions, but the need to "lose" at Copenhagen in order to expand the momentum for this conversion is the biggest of the bunch.

The problem with treaties

I am not pulling rank here, but my own (too long!) experience makes me very wary. As you know, I went to law school in the '70s with a goal of stopping whaling. When I graduated, and came back to Vancouver, the media was ablaze with photos of the Greenpeace zodiac between the Russian whaling ships and the whales. I soon found myself in the Greenpeace office on Fourth Avenue, where it was easy (in those early days) to convince a core group -- Bob Hunter, Pat Moore, and Paul Spong -- of my plan. Greenpeace had the world's attention -- but it wasn't where the decisions were being made at the International Whaling Commission. So, yes, they agreed, let's do it. And I had a job -- get us accredited at the IWC, be our delegate, and get a ban.

And so, I worked with Greenpeace (and others) over the next 20 years on a variety of international negotiations. I have also studied these treaties, and taught them, and I have learned a bit about what they can and cannot do.

For example, everyone today is freaked out about the leaked emails of last week that are throwing the climate science into question. (Interesting timing, eh?) Science is, they say, being politicized. Right. It has always been this way. The problem is that the real politics in science that I have experienced are on the other side. At the IWC, my biggest lesson came at my first meeting -- I was your age. A critical analysis of the reproductive rates of sperm whales in the North Pacific had shown that the proposed quota for the next summer should be slashed from 10,000 to 0. After a major struggle, and with only a handful of environmentalists in attendance, we got the cut! But with a caveat -- the science would be reviewed at a special follow-up meeting.

Sure enough, in Tokyo the following winter, the science was "revisited," and the quote was jacked back up. One variable was changed -- and the following summer, 10,000 whales were killed. But the effort that the whalers expended the next summer to find that dwindling population was so great that the hunt could no longer be justified, however much you fiddled the variables. The result was that the recovery of the sperm whales in the South Pacific was set back for many, many decades to come.

Now the upside is that we did get a moratorium -- one on long distance whaling in 1979, and a full commercial moratorium in 1982. So treaties can work, even though Japanese whalers are still whaling, operating under a phony "scientific" exemption (there it is again). Meanwhile, Japan repeatedly threatens to leave the International Whaling Commission.

But enough history. Here are some lessons that I have learned.

More problems with treaties

One is that our individual governments operate at these levels only in their perceived "national interest." This is the "collective action" problem. Canada, by the way, was one of the worst pro-whalers right up until the 1982 moratorium. So its bad reputation today has long preceded it, despite federal green-washing.

In these negotiations, what’s right for planetary health counts for almost nothing in comparison with what counts politically (and economically) at home. Why do you think there isn’t any global forests convention, though God knows, we need one. All forests are national, and all the negotiations even to discuss a treaty have produced more smoke and mirror than you will ever see over the next couple of weeks. Again, Canada is no supporter here; its concern for national sovereignty trumps its planetary responsibilities hands down.

As any international environmental lawyer will tell you, the results of treaty negotiations reflect the "lowest common denominator" of the states involved. (That denominator is economic.) The necessity of Copenhagen is to redefine that denominator, and push it way up. But such a goal is not on the table, because it is state delegates, not environmentalists, who draft the treaties, sign them and implement them (or not).

Yes, treaties can be effective, but there's another irony here. Their effectiveness is greatest when there is the least at stake. Like where there are only a few bad guys to control, or a low-cost solution at hand. At the Whaling Commission, there were only two long distance whalers -- Japan and Russia -- and it was still a huge battle.

And we were able to "solve" the problem of ozone depletion from CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) only because we could easily replace CFCs with a different refrigerant.

But in Copenhagen, these conditions don't exist. Everyone is more or less a bad guy because everyone contributes to climate change, and controlling it goes to the heart of every national economy.

'Well it's a first step' and other fallacies

There is another lesson that should cause real caution if it looks like something minimal is coming out of Copenhagen. Targets that are set as minimums end up becoming maximums. If science later points to the need for more aggressive action (as it has a habit of doing), no matter. It takes years, decades, a whole generation to bump up the targets. In other words, a weak treaty itself becomes an immovable object, so that overcoming it becomes a massive energy sink for the whole movement. Time is wasted.

If one were to be cynical, or realistic, this would help explain why so many world leaders support a treaty. It will provide a shield against more demanding political commitments, and sheathe the sword that might actually slay climate change. Given the minimal positions of the U.S., China, India and a host of other states (not to mention Canada), nothing more can be expected. Even Dr. Climate Science himself, James Hansen of NASA, is now saying that Copenhagen should fail. This is why.

So, when you start hearing "Well, it's a first step," it's time to shout "Fire!" and race for the exits. And take the voting delegates with you!

One last lesson: even minimal targets are meant to be missed. We have seen this with the Kyoto Protocol. But there is an even more telling example that is not yet big news. When the Framework Convention was agreed to in Rio in 1992, the other big achievement was the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). The parties to the CBD -- the same governments at Copenhagen -- later set a fixed date and formally agreed to "achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level." In their upcoming meeting next April, these parties will announce that they have been unable to meet these targets, and that there is no hope for doing so.

The elephant that is not even in the room

Speaking of the CBD, there's another big problem too -- biodiversity loss. And this unfolding global catastrophe is not related historically to climate change. And it's not the only one such problem.

You know the whole debate about the "hockey stick" -- the proposition that when you plot the increase over time in atmospheric greenhouse gases on a graph, the shape of the trajectory looks like a hockey stick, rising gradually over the decades then shooting up like a rocket in recent years. Well, the real issue here is not whether science supports this hockey stick graph. That whole debate is really a minor skirmish, and a diversion, because we are not talking about a single hockey stick, but a whole locker room full of hockey sticks!

If you were to pass around a single piece of information at Copenhagen, it should be the two pages of graphs at the beginning of an interesting book written by Gus Speth, this generation's leading environmental bureaucrat in Washington D.C. The book is The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Speth sets out 16 hockey stick graphs that portray increases in water use, in the damning of rivers, in CO2 concentrations, ozone depletion (hopefully now slowing down), rates of increase in average surface temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere, the rising frequency of great floods, depletion of ocean ecosystems, loss of rainforests, biodiversity decline, increases in fertilizer and paper consumption, and the explosion in the number of motor vehicles.

And three others: growth in the size of the global economy (GDP), foreign direct investment, and population.

Together, these graphs -- all hockey sticks -- provide a single message. We are killing the earth in every way imaginable, getting rich in the process, and providing a model for a growing world population to join in on.

In short, the message is that we have a system problem, not just a climate problem. And, for me, this leads to two questions. First, can we solve a system problem by solving one aspect of it? Clearly not. But, you will say that climate change is hugely urgent (yes, it is), and it is going to make all those other problems worse (yes, it is). So we have to act on it now, and fast. This is understandable; this is the mantra.

But I would then ask you a second question -- can you solve one problem (climate) without addressing the underlying system problems driving it and all the others? Few, if anyone, with the power to make a difference in the hard negotiations is addressing this question, because the whole conference is premised on that answer being "Yes, we can." Unfortunately, the correct answer is "No, we can't."

Tomorrow: Bring in the elephants.  [Tyee]

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